Jim's done singleplayer, I've done the From Ashes DLC, and now I take on Mass Effect 3's vaguely controversial four players vs AI-controlled enemy waves co-op multiplayer mode. I've been playing it what might be said to be a little too much over the last week, having taken several characters to level 20 and gotten righteously indignant that I keep unlocking pistols rather than sniper rifles. Allow me to explain.
I lay there, dying and enraged. My last surviving team-mate, a Salarian Infilitrator, stood right next to me. Actually, that's a lie, intended to cover my indignity - he was standing right on top of me, feet stomping on my face, taking wild potshots at a Cerberus Centurion hiding behind a nearby wall. All he had to do was press one button for a couple of seconds, and I'd be back in the fight, at his side, helping him to win this war and go home with the spoils of victory. I hadn't wired up a mic for this match, so I couldn't scream and beg at him. Still, what was required was beyond obvious - yet he would not do it. The seconds ticked away. My blood trickled away.
The Centurion, eventually, expired, and precious moments of my life yet remained. Now, surely, this frog-faced brother-in-arms would come to my aid. He didn't even look at me. He ran on. Moments later, I furiously shuffled off my mortal Quarian coil. My last sight was a Phantom assassin coolly running her blade through the Salarian's stomach. That meant this mission was a failure. I could have saved him from that. Why hadn't he helped me? Why had he damned himself so? This fight was a co-operative one: we had everything to gain by helping each other, and nothing to lose. Once my fury dissipated, I came up with two good reasons for his bizarre and fatal behaviour.
Number 1, that guy was just a dick, and a gloryhound. That covers all the bases, but left me feeling bitter. So, number 2: this is Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, you can choose to be a Renegade, a bad boy/girl, a egomaniac who doesn't play nice with others and reserves his right to beat, execute or sacrifice anyone he doesn't feel helps his crusade. Still a dick, yes - but a dick with purpose. Realising that really did make me feel better about the disastrous battle. Less happily, it brought out the Renegade in me. I took a note of that bulgy-eyed bastard's name, you just bet I did. If I ever encounter him again, he'll find me to be about as co-operative as a starving grizzly bear.
The real take-home realisation from this silent conflict with an anonymous stranger was that I cared. I'd expected Mass Effect 3 multiplayer to be throwaway and cynical, and primarily existing as a back of the box feature, an anti-trade-in and piracy measure and an additional avenue to flog DLC. It is all of those things too, and it goes almost without saying in the current age of reward-based multiplayer that the foundation of my engagement with these four-player co-op missions was the lizard-brain hunger for upgrades and unlocks (of which there are dozens). But, crucially, I also want to win the fights. Not complete them, not survive long enough to get the majority of the available XP and cash. Win them. Beat the enemy. Be a real hero. Perform dramatic feats, work together to take down giant Cerberus mechs or the walking metal walls that are Geth Primes, or the ever-terrifying Reaper Banshees.
Somewhere, Commander Shepard is off on a quest for mystical artifacts and to tap assorted alien bottom and to make all the known species sit down and sing kumbaya together, but this the real fight: boots on the ground, different races but the same purpose, with no magic doohickeys involved. These are epic fights of survival against mounting odds, not the grindy scripting of ME3 singleplayer's combat.
That feeling doesn't last long. The maps are too few, the variety of challenge and foe in short supply, so unlocking new weapons and characters ultimately becomes the main source of newness and thus primary drive to keep playing. There's a missed opportunity, I think, to up the enemy variety by using the ME lore concept of Reaper indoctrination to justify going up against Turians, Krogan, Asari et al, rather than seeing Cerberus, Geth and Reaper units time and time again. Then again, that would mean co-op wasn't able to simply recycle the singleplayer units then up the challenge by draping them in vast numbers of extra hitpoints. Initially, I grumbled that taking out, say, a Geth Prime was so much tougher than in singleplayer. No consistency! Everything's all over the place!
Then I remembered that I wasn't Commander Shepard anymore. The legendary Shepard, saviour of the galaxy, destroyer of worlds, all that epic jazz. No, I was just some soldier now, some disposable grunt. Of course I wouldn't be able to take out a Geth Prime solo.
Well, not without one of the one-time-use rocket launchers I could buy. And even then, I can't buy it directly. Instead, I spend my in-game currency on 'Packs', which offer a random grab bag of items, trading card style. Depending on how much you can spend, the odds of getting something splendid like a new character (you only have access to humans by default), weapon, or weapon upgrade (each gun can be ramped up to level 10) vary. Mostly, though, you'll get one-shot items like Medigels for instant resurrection, the kills absolutely anything rocket launcher or ammo and shield replenishment packs. They're match changing items, jealously guarded and to be used only in dire straits. That there's no way to directly purchase any of them saves them from feeling cheaty. Instead, when someone busts out their rocket launcher just as a pack of Geth Primes descend on you, it's an incredible relief. You know it pains them to use it up, and you know that all it buys you is a few seconds of breathing space. Make the best of them.
(Oh, I should mention that you can buy credits with real money if you want to shortcut to buying a better Pack, but while that's mercenary on EA's part, if you do it you're a lazy idiot. You can earn enough to afford one of the top-tier Spectre packs in just a couple of matches, so long as you play and do relatively well at Silver or Gold difficulty. Bronze difficulty is for numpties anyway).
What I most get out of ME3 multiplayer though is what's always been sadly absent from Mass Effect singleplayer - playing directly as one of the increasingly iconic alien races, rather than being locked into Shepard's boots. Krogan, Turian, Salarian, Quarian, Drell, Asari - all humanoid and thus not that different from playing as one of the boggo humans, but they move differently, they have voices that evokes ME's beloved cast and they have species-specific powers. Sure, there's no roleplaying or destiny-questing, but I got a surprising kick out of discovering I'd unlocked a Krogan Soldier, then a Drell Vanguard and, my current favourite, a Quarian Infilitrator.
There isn't too much sense in ME2 and ME3 of getting a giant toolbox of abilities to play with, as it broadly boils down to anti-Armour power, anti-Shield power and grenades, but co-op gradually allows access to a wide range of biotic and tech powers and thus some explosive and tactical fights, depending on what team you end up wading into the fray with. Also, unlike Shepard's inexplicably suicidal policy of only ever taking two colleagues into battle even when the fate of existence itself is at stake, the headcount rises to four, and that does make a surprising amount of difference in terms of the scale of the fights.
I still haven't unlocked a Salarian, which means I can't yet pretend to be my favourite ME character, funny-talkin', tortured scientist Mordin, so I'm definitely going to keep at ME3 multiplayer until I do. But, after three of four days of exhilarating fights, tragic defeats and heroic victories, I do feel I've seen it all many times over. It is a fine addition to the overall ME3 package, but I don't think it's got long-term legs unless Bioware do something incredible with the planned DLC.
The controversial singleplayer Galactic Readiness multiplayer contributes to is very much a storm in a teacup, as it doesn't take long to max it out (though, infuriatingly, it does diminish over time if you don't keep playing) and, doing my best to steer clear of spoilers here, whatever you wind up with won't alter the major beats of ME3's endings anyway. That said though, if you are determined to max out Galactic Readiness/Effective Military Strength, co-op is a far more entertaining way of doing it than that tedious planet-scanning minigame. The whole concept is a misfire though. It would have been far more satisfyingly and coherently achieved via actual quests, not number-hunting. Fortunately, the awkward, cynical meta-game doesn't actively diminish the co-op in its own right.
In other words - if you've been avoiding co-op for any reason, you are missing out on a good time and one that is, in some ways, more faithful to Mass Effect's nuts'n'bolts concept of a loose alliance of intergalactic races battling against organised invaders than ME3's lone hero vs mystic spaceships tale is. Essentially it offers an improved version of ME3's combat, with the cutscenes and scripting removed and ramped-up risk. It gets old fast enough that it most certainly isn't a reason to buy the game if you don't care about singleplayer, but I'd say there's a good week of tight science-fictional action to be milked from it first.